ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — After a COVID outbreak denied the Tampa Bay Rowdies the chance to fight for the title last year, the team went into Sunday's USL final with hopes of winning it all. But despite an incredible season — and the support of a sold-out stadium of cheering fans, the Rowdies came up short, losing the championship game 3-1 to Orange County FC.
Tampa Bay wasn't able to recover from Orange County's strong lead at the start of the game, where they scored three goals before the refs blew the halftime whistle.
This is unusual for the Rowdies, who hadn't allowed three goals against them in a match since August 2019. The team actually allowed the fewest shots on goal this season with keeper Evan Louro being named USL goalkeeper of the year on Friday.
However, the Rowdies went into Sunday's game with Raiko Arozarena, younger brother of Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena, in the net, substituting for Louro who, according to the Tampa Bay Times, hurt his right knee in a postgame celebration last weekend.
Orange County's Ronaldo Damus scored goals in the 25th and 38th minute to give Orange County an early 2-0 lead. Mikko Kuningas scored on a free kick in the 45th minute to give the team the 3-0 lead.
Rowdies fans had hope for a second-half comeback as Leo Fernandes scored in the 57th minute, but Tampa Bay wasn't able to keep the momentum going.
“Who prepares you for being 3-nil down at halftime in a Cup final? Highly unusual,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins told the Tampa Bay Times. “We wanted to get a goal. We got the goal at a great time. We knocked the door down, but the boys put in so much energy, (and) we fell short."
“There will be a few regrets from a couple of players I’m sure, but they’ve done this club so proud,” Collins continued. “It’ll either break you or make you stronger, and (our guys)...it’ll make them stronger.”
The Rowdies ended the season as USL Eastern Conference Champions for the second year in a row.